The outsourcing industry has brought jobs and prosperity to India - but, asks Saritha Rai, at what cost to workers' well being?
The cheery, chatty voice at the other end of your customer care helpline may be a stressed-out, sleep-deprived and depressed twenty-something in Bangalore.
As many young people in India's outsourcing industry are beginning to discover, underneath the heady promise of an exciting job, a good paycheck and attractive career prospects lie long spells of night shifts, ruthless targets and the dreadful monotony of writing code or pacifying angry customers.
The outsourcing industry has long been hailed as a key driver to India's rise as a global economic power. Now, that growth is beginning to take its toll on its workers who labour for long hours in stressful work environments to meet tight deadlines for customers thousands of miles away.
Workers are suffering from obesity, sleep disorders, depression and broken relationships - problems which can lead to more serious conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. In a country where a public healthcare system is virtually non-existent, overworked outsourcing employees could present a health crisis in the making.
The troubles have worsened since the start of the global economic downturn last year. Employees are now particularly worried about job security. They watch anxiously as colleagues get axed from their jobs and their own salaries get slashed.
Karuna Baskar, director at 1to1help.net, a Bangalore-based counselling firm, says there is a recent rise in the number of workers coming in with mental issues like depression, bi-polar disorder and suicidal tendencies.
Many workers struggle to make the transition from the college campus to the office environment and find they cannot cope with the stress, says Aashu Calapa, executive vice president of human resources for outsourcing firm Firstsource Solutions. The industry loses a slice of its workers solely to work stress, he says.
Ash (not his real name), an employee with a multinational firm's captive outsourced unit in Bangalore, has just been discharged from a week's stay in the hospital. Ironically, he prides himself for being near-religious about eating correctly and getting adequate sleep and exercise.
But in the end, all it took was a schedule that went out-of-whack for a week for him to land up in the hospital with acute gastric problems. The doctors advised him to ease off alcohol and better manage work stress.
Ash, who has worked night shifts during his entire four-year career at the back office firm, believes he got away lightly.
His friends suffer from migraines, backaches, insomnia and anxiety attacks. The causes are a combination of long work hours, disrupted eating and sleeping schedules, a fondness for junk food and deadline pressure, he says.
Many outsourcing workers are in their early 20s, just out of college and in their first jobs, and often feel they are invincible. But partying, shopping and living a reckless life on newfound economic freedom soon begin to take their toll.
During the weekends, to relieve a week's pressure at work and to keep up with peers, they often indulge in chain smoking and binge drinking.
Not everybody is tough enough to handle the pressure and the lifestyle. Along with health, the invariable casualty is family and relationships, says Baskar whose confidential counselling service sees a surfeit of 19- to 29-year-olds with issues like loneliness, relationship problems and marriage breakdowns.
Globalisation and the outsourcing industry in particular have brought rapid and enormous changes in the culture of India cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune. In the homes of outsourcing workers, clashes over the traditional system of arranged marriages and the working woman's domestic role are common.
The industry is concerned, says Firstsource's Calapa. Firstsource provides on-call counsellors and quality checks on food served to workers - and is currently considering a proposal to offer workers options for their work hours and workdays.
Other companies are doing their bit too, providing counsellors, doctors and nutritionists, as well as gym facilities and medical insurance. However, many young workers simply ignore the help available to them.
Outsourcing worker Ash looks back and rues that he entered the job market so young. He now thinks he would have liked to pursue graduate studies. But now he is in, he feels there is no quick exit from the outsourcing industry and wants to stay healthy and get ahead.
Saritha Rai is an India-based journalist and commentator who covers technology, business and society from her ringside seat in Bangalore.